Racial inequality in Baltimore’s public schools is in part the byproduct of long-standing neglect. In a system in which eight out of 10 students are black, broken heaters forced students to learn in frigid temperatures this past winter. Black children in Baltimore’s education system face systemic disadvantages: They’re suspended at much higher rates than their white peers; they rarely pass their math or reading tests; their campuses are chronically underfunded.
Yet this stark reality is juxtaposed with a largely unnoticed educational phenomenon underway in the city.
In a brightly painted row house in East Baltimore, Cameren Queen, who’s 13, walked confidently to a colorful trifold poster, cleared her throat, and began to speak. Her oral presentation—“All About Hepatitis C”—was the culmination of two weeks of work. With animated precision, she rattled off common symptoms of hepatitis C, specified risk factors, described prevention strategies, and listed treatment plans. Seated to her right, the instructor—her mother, April VaiVai—listened intently, scrutinizing facts and peppering Cameren with questions. The two of them are part of a thriving community of black homeschooling families, here in Baltimore and elsewhere throughout the country, taking the adage “Parents are a child’s first teacher” to another level.
The homeschooling population in the United States is predominantly white and concentrated in suburban or rural areas. In 2016, black children accounted for 8 percent of the 1.7 million homeschooled students nationally, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. What federal education data don’t show, though, is what’s driving those 136,000 or so black students and their families into homeschooling. Nor do the data reveal the tenacity and tradition that bond this homeschooling movement—a movement that challenges many of the prevailing stereotypes about homeschooling, which tends to be characterized as the province of conservative Christians, public-school opponents, and government skeptics.
For VaiVai and many other black homeschoolers, seizing control of their children’s schooling is an act of affirmation—a means of liberating themselves from the systemic racism embedded in so many of today’s schools and continuing the campaign for educational independence launched by their ancestors more than a century ago. In doing so, many are channeling an often overlooked history of black learning in America that’s rooted in liberation from enslavement. When seen in this light, the modern black-homeschooling movement is evocative of African Americans’ generations-long struggle to change their children’s destiny through education—and to do so themselves.